Honeycrisp challenges packers
Harvest timing and maturity are critical factors in how well the variety stores.
As Washington’s Honeycrisp production increases, so does the need to store the variety for longer periods of time. Last fall, Washington harvested almost 5 million boxes of Honeycrisp, up from 2.8 million just two years earlier.
From the grower’s point of view, Honeycrisp is a dream come true, with returns of up to $750 for a two-thirds-full bin. Packers and shippers need the variety because their customers are upset if they don’t have them. Yet, storing Honeycrisp is fraught with difficulties because of its extreme susceptibility to disorders such as superficial scald, soggy breakdown, and bitter pit.
During the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting, a panel of grower-packers discussed the challenges of handling Honeycrisp.
Peter Verbrugge, with Sage Fruit Company in Yakima, said it can be difficult for growers to manage their harvest labor because Honeycrisp harvest overlaps with Gala, but if Honeycrisp is not picked on time, it can create challenges at the warehouse.
A Sage Fruit horticulturist visits each block before harvest. The fruit-to-leaf ratio, rootstock, whether the trees were grafted, age of the trees, pruning, thinning, nutrient balance, and soil type are all important factors in the quality of the fruit and how it holds up after harvest.
Color can be inconsistent, and Honeycrisp with a light green background lack flavor, Verbrugge said.“We have to watch that, as growers, to make sure we keep demand up.”
Michael Roche of Roche Fruit Company, Yakima, said his company has been growing and packing Honeycrisp since 2000 and has been storing it in volume for the past three years.
“The challenge is learning how to store the volume that’s coming on, as an industry, and maintain that good eating experience,” he said.
The company tries to identify which orchard blocks produce fruit that has the best chance of being stored successfully and divides the fruit into three different storage categories (two in regular storage and one in CA) depending on the age of the orchard block, the crop load, and the vigor of the tree. The company uses chemical thinning, hand thinning, and a reflective ground cover to promote return bloom and ensure annual cropping.
Harvest timing and maturity are the most critical factors for success at the packing house, Roche said. The company is using Harvista (1-methylcyclopropene applied in the field) to manage maturity.
“We think the results have been acceptable,” he said. “We’re trying whatever we can to get the maturity perfect. We want to pick fruit with the ideal maturity, and that’s difficult because there are tradeoffs. You want flavor and color, but you also want to give it a chance to survive through a six- or seven-month period. You want the starch levels to be correct (at 50 to 70 percent starch conversion) and might have to pick it a little bit greener.”
Verbrugge said his company is looking at new red strains of Honeycrisp as a way to harvest fruit at the right maturity and be competitive in the marketplace.
“When you look at Nova Scotia, they get 100-percent red with the standard strain of Honeycrisp. We’re going to have to compete with that. Everything is going to be important as we move forward. We’ve been able to sell whatever we have, and the challenge to our industry is if we don’t put a consistent product out, that premium is going to go away. We’re going to have to figure out the strains, and sites, and maintain the quality of this variety.”
Roche said communication between the orchard and the warehouse is even more critical with Honeycrisp than with other varieties because of the high value of the crop and the potential for problems.
The company tries to use smaller storage rooms to reduce the fill time in order to minimize maturity differences between the first and last fruit to go in. The warehouse needs to know how much volume to expect from the field each day in order to manage its storage.
The fruit is preconditioned and cooled in stages. Roche said his company uses a controlled atmosphere of 2.5 to 3.0 percent oxygen and a carbon dioxide level of 1 percent or less.
Glade Brosi, who manages the research and development department at Stemilt Growers, Inc., in Wenatchee, said Stemilt is using several methods to promote regular cropping and even maturity. It has tried shade cloth to reduce heat stress and reflective ground covers to promote color, and has a couple of years’ experience with Harvista. “We do as much as we can do to have a consistent crop and color on the tree,” he said, noting that there are huge differences in Honeycrisp from different orchard blocks and great variability from year to year.
“What does not work, for sure, is to have the grower bring in a bunch of bins of Honeycrisp and load them off the truck and stick them in a room,” he said. “We need more information. Is it a second-leaf tree with those giant apples that are probably going to have bitter pit, or is it an established, mature orchard?”
Stemilt has CA storage rooms with a 60-bin capacity, where it can do small-scale trials with much less risk than a full 1,500-bin-capacity room.